Tuesday, August 9, 2016

A close call

Toads, for me, are like the perennial underdog, the bad news bears of the amphibian world. They're goofy and clumsy on land, often tumbling down rocks or embankments as they pronk around. Much of Burlington is on sandy deltaic sediments from the Champlain Sea. It drains well and there are scant wetlands, save along the Winooski River, flood zones along the lake, or retention ponds built to handle run off. I live near the latter most habitat and from my windows can hear toads trilling on the first warm (50+ degree) nights of spring. After 8 years of seeing toads in my garden and wishing they had a breeding habitat, I finally got around to building a pond. I got toad eggs and raised them to mature tadpoles before releasing them into the pond. After about 2 days of filling the pond with water we already had a couple of competing males trilling away.

I've been seeing more and more toadlets (tiny, ~1/2") popping around, so looks like my first parenting project was a success! But not all is well in the land of toads. Today while out at Derf Beach (Fred's Beach to many, at the north end of North Beach), I was pulling poison ivy when all of a sudden I was spooked by a strange two-headed, two-legged beast. I yelled and jumped simultaneously. And then I realized what I was looking at!
Oh, that leg. Not sure how the snake got both legs into its mouth. But it did. 

A yellow jacket showed up and curiously buzzed around the toad for a while

Eventually the snake wormed its way backward and over the green ash roots. Perhaps in response to us, trying to covet its meal. Each animal seemed to move in bursts followed by small movements trying to gain leverage. 

Oh, how my heart went out to that poor toad. And what a beast of a toad, easily one of the largest toads I've ever seen. We surmised that it was puffing out its chest to make it difficult for the garter snake to swallow it any further. We watched the struggle unfold for about 10 minutes before we had to leave. Perhaps the most striking realization that I had was that toads don't have facial expressions, a simple observation but so dramatic when I realized that this toad was having perhaps the most dramatic and terrifying experience of its life and it's face was totally stoic, or rather unchanged. As we were leaving someone called us back for the culmination of the struggle. The snake had decided it had bit off more than it could chew and released the toad from its grasp. A sad day for snake enthusiasts, a great day for toad-a-philes, and a fascinating, but morally neutral day for ecologists :)

Here's the toad post-battle.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The many moods of Lake Champlain

Just wanted to share a few images I've taken of Mink Bay at Rock Point over the past few weeks.

One of the more intense storms of the summer. Sudden gusts up to 40mph brought in sheets of rain for about 30 minutes. This was about 5 minutes before it hit

Calm and delightful sunset at Mink Bay

Paddling out past Lone Rock.

A fair weather cloud

Gap between Lone Rock and the Secret Cave

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Poison Ivy ID Quiz

Test your identification knowledge to see if you can tell the difference between PI and other common look alikes

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Identifying Poison Ivy

Poison ivy leaf shape. Two mittens on the sides giving a thumbs down with bilateral symmetry on middle leaflet.
I've posted in the past about poison ivy (1, 2, 3), but thought I'd post again, this time with an eye to identification. My goal with kiddos at Crow's Path programs is to get them to be able to subconsciously identify poison ivy while running around playing games. This definitely takes practice - lots of dirt time looking, drawing, studying - but once you create a search image and lock it into your brain you no longer have to think to activate that process. Awareness, to a certain degree, becomes a passive, embedded process.

My original post on poison ivy from so many years ago focused on the diversity of poison ivy, but also the general form. It's amazing to me that we can identify a species from a thousand different angles under a thousand different lightings. No two poison ivy plants are the same size, shape, color, texture. But the patterns are distinct enough that our brain can readily generalize a specific form and lump it in with other similar forms and parse it out from dissimilar forms.

Poison ivy with damage from a leaf miner
Researchers recently found the same process happens with ducklings, which immediately after hatching are able to imprint onto a mother figure. Imprinting isn't about recognizing a static form, like a circle or star, but rather a complex moving creature that will guide them to safety. The guide may be sneaking through tall grass, flapping their wings, or swimming across the surface of the water. Whatever their varied shape, a duckling's survival depends on its ability to recognize their alpha. So to do humans share an ability to recognize and lump, though as the ultimate generalist omnivores fortunately we lack the lazer like focus on a specific entity and instead have a far less specific and infinitely more powerful ID skillset. Being able to recognize many different forms translates to us being able to recognize and consume some 600 different genera in any one location (Carol Yoon describes this odd upper limit of 600 forms in her book on taxonomy Naming Nature, referring to a person's ability to name a max of about 600 different species, bands, products, etc from memory).

Forging a search image requires spending time looking closely (or I guess just subconsciously assimilating small bits of information over long periods of time works too as I don't ever remember learning to identify dandelion or pigeons or Katy Perry, but here I am capable of recognizing her almost instantly on a poster at Staples). As much as this can work, looking closely is more fun, more transferable, and more interesting. So, looking closely at poison ivy might reveal:

  • A woody stem
  • Each aerial stem typically has only 1-2 leaves emerging from it
  • Alternate branched leaves
  • Poison ivy that has taken to vining, at least in our region, is very uncommon
  • When it does vine it uses aerial/adventitious roots to attach to tree (not tendrils, spiraling, or hooks)
  • The 3 leaves are actually 3 leaflets that together form one leaf. 
  • Smooth (not waxy or hairy)
  • Leaves often show signs of damage from leaf miners
  • Form a T-shape, with two on side having short petioles (leaf attachments) than the middle leaflet
  • Side leaflets are asymmetrical, middle one is bilaterally symmetrical
  • Two side leaflets often look like they're given a thumbs down

  • The fruits are like little whitish yellow pumpkins and readily pop off the stem
  • They're often hidden beneath the leaves so difficult to find
  • I've observed deer and catbirds eating them
  • Reproduce mostly via runners (I've hand pulled poison ivy and if you get a runner you can pull up a few feet of horizontal roots!!)
  • Roots are dark brown and around an 1/8"-1/4" in diameter at most.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Queen Anne's Lace

Queen Anne's Lace flower in full bloom. Note purple, almost black flower, in center of umbel
When I first learned to identify wild carrot, or Daucus carota, I was eagerly followed its name like a blinking road sign down to the earth. I dug up its root, letting its earthy mint scent wash over my nose. I gently patted the sand from the white carrot pinched delicately between my fingers, nipped off the leaves, and popped the little treat in my mouth. Yum. Domestic carrots often lack the richness of flavor of their wild ancestor, though make up for it, I suppose, in size.

Side view, showing umbel-ness of inflorescence. All flowers originate from single point

I harvested a bunch of the little carrots that summer, but somehow spent surprisingly little time with the plant. It wasn't until the following summer, when I got bees, that I really paid much attention to the above ground part of the plant. I noticed my bees particular zeal for the flat splay of delicate white flowers. Each umbel (a clumb of short-stalked flowers all emerging from a central point) is marked centrally with a deep purple whose purpose, I read, is to guide bees and other pollinators in. More than guide the insect to the inflorescence as a whole, it guides the insect towards the center of the umbel, ensuring that it will come in contact with as many florets as possible before visiting the next plant. 

The mythology of the plant's other name, Queen Anne's Lace, refers to one of several different Queen Annes, who pricked herself while making her lace. A lone drop of blood fell forth from her fingers, tarnishing the otherwise perfect lace. One odd thing about the sanguine flower is that it is sterile, a sacrificial flower to draw in pollinators! Felix, a kiddo in our Whittler's Wharf camp at Crow's Path brought me the above specimen. As we were looking at the flowers I noticed that one of the clusters actually had a second sterile purple flower at the margin of the umbel in addition to the one located at the center (this is visible as a dark, upside down heart on the top left of the above image).

This Queen Anne's Lace, oddly enough, doesn't have the sterile central flower

And just a bonus shot showing a developing inflorescence 

Friday, July 15, 2016

More blue green algae photos

Luckily a big afternoon storm rolled through on Wednesday afternoon, bringing with it intense winds and fresh rain. By Thursday much of the blue green algae had cleared out from what we at Crow's Path call Derf Beach (Fred's Beach to Rock Pointers) and most of the closed beaches were clear enough to swim in. I thought I'd post a few more photos, these from Wednesday before it cleared out.

The image below shows how a small sandbar created a windbreak, which created perfect conditions for the cyanobacteria to grow to high and potentially dangerous conditions. The waves seen just past the sand bar and already broken up much of the grosser pea soup swirls along North Beach before Wednesday's afternoon storm.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Blue-Green Algae

Feels like it's been forever since I posted here, and while I've been inspired to research many of the questions I've come across in recent months, this is the first time I've decided to follow up and write about it! So without further ado, blue green algae!

Today while out at Rock Point for Crow's Path summer camps, our efforts to find respite from the summer heat were thwarted by a nasty sludge lapping against the shoreline. When we got to the beach, life guards from North Beach were walking up and down the beach taking photos, likely as part of the state's blue green algae tracking efforts (see link for current reports from around the state). North Beach is a near perfect recipe for blue green algae blooms. It has a large shallow sandy beach that extends far out into the lake, with full exposure all day. It's also sheltered from winds out of the north, south, and west by Rock Point, winds that would otherwise bring in cooler water, which would slow down reproductive rates of the cyanobacteria, or disperse the blue green algae.

We've had air temperatures consistently above 70 since the middle of May. The water temperature is currently above 70(!!) and with the absence of wind, the conditions are perfect for blooms. The forecast is hot hot hot tomorrow with no wind. The rains could bring wind, which would shake things up, but they could also bring in more nutrients to the lake which would feed the cyanobacteria's growth.

How do you identify it?
  • It'll look like a greenish paste towards the surface, much like pea soup
  • When it gets super intense you'll see what looks like bluish or greenish swaths of paint on the surface
  • Before it gets to these concentrations, the water will take a greenish hint and you can see little green dots floating in the water. 

So if I see it in the water, what should I do?
  • Well, probably don't go in the water. According to the Vermont Dept of Health there are no known cases of the blooms causing human illness, but I'd rather not take the risk as associated symptoms may include:  
    • Skin rashes
    • Vomiting, diarrhea
    • Allergic-like reactions if water droplets inhaled
  • Don't let your pet go in the water. Pets won't know the difference and can drink the water and get ill
  • If you're on the fence about whether or not to go in the water, definitely check with whoever maintains the beach or check the state's blue green algae tracker

Oh, and a note about taxonomy...or maybe a warning. Michigan botanists Edward Voss said, "Common names are for common people." Common names lead to lots of confusion about the organisms we're talking about. Blue green algae is a perfect example. While it is bluish green, it's not an algae. Algae alone is difficult enough. For a good exercise in frustration, try boning up on your algae taxonomy. Algae's not a plant (no roots, no leaves), but neighter is it a true bacteria (they're eukaryotes). Blue green algae is a bacteria, or more specifically cyanobacteria, a branch of photosynthetic bacteria. Being bacteria, they are simple organisms and super super tiny. We only get to see them when their populations get out of control.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Field Trip: Proctor

Just before Christmas, Mo and I headed down to the old quarry town of Proctor, located in the Vermont Valley just outside Rutland. While the heyday has come and gone, the quiet town is now home to the Vermont Marble Museum. Old abandoned quarries and an amazing mill next to the dam. It's part of a line of limestone/marble quarries that runs, well pretty much down the east cost down into the great caving belt in Kentucky. Mo's done a lot of cave exploration and I recently have been to a few, all in limestone. A lot of excavations - whether as a quarry or road cut - exposed old cavernous fractures in rock, slowly etched away by acidic rain water. These hidden caverns are called karst topography, which I wrote about previously.

Because the substrate - rock and cement here as there's basically no soil - is so rich in nutrients from the limestone, moss readily grows on the concrete slabs and inside of the old mill, which is empty of its former occupation and currently used as storage for RVs and boats.

The water weaves intricate patterns on concrete structures. The acidity of the rain draws out calcareous elements, slowly depositing them in fissures and grooves, and along the bottoms of tiny ledges.

Marble floor tiles with a paper birch emerging from the ruins
It is one of the strangest places I've ever been. The town was swimming in marble. And the built everything out of it. Even in the crappy little office in the image above the floor tiles were decadently made out of marble. As with the moss, the calcium rich substrate allows trees to grow in odd places and deal more readily with shade that would otherwise stress them too much to allow them to grow. In the above photos there's a birch tree growing between tiles and we found them growing throughout the building and on the roof.

The bedrock geology map below shows the town of Proctor composed of and surrounded mostly by north-south running bands of dolostone and marbles. These are the same rocks that jut out along the cliffy edge of Lake Champlain.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Field Trip: Mud Pond in Williston

Grumpy old cattail herma
Mud Pond has been on my bucket list for a few years now, since I heard about the microburst damage there. Last week I finally made the trek out there with my sister, and wow was it totally worth it. We hopped off the trail after about a 100 yards following a set of gray squirrel tracks. It broke out of the hemlocks into the open of a red maple swamp. We quickly switched to a gray fox trail, which crossed fisher, mink, long tailed weasel, and red fox! The tracking was totally amazing with a ton of different habitats woven together.

The fox lead us down to a creek which ultimately drained into Mud Pond proper. There's a great mix of American elms and green ash in with the red maples. The ice on the creek was gorgeous and we spent a while photographing it before heading out on the dam to explore the old, abandoned beaver lodge. The mud caking the outside had largely washed away and we could poke our heads in to see the feeding platform. It's not often you get to look inside an old lodge, so that was wonderful. The rim of the pond is a dense tangle of cattails and sedges that as the land slopes up grades into an even denser tangle of alders and then maples.

Possibly a goldfinch nest in a speckled alder
The highlight was towards the end where I saw a long swoop carved gently into the snow. It started in a little patch between hemlocks about 4 feet before ending in a flurry of little squirrely tracks. These circled around themselves for awhile before disappearing up a tree. I've never seen definitive flying squirrel tracks, so it made the whole day worth it. Plus there were several bird splatterings on the snow filled with snow fleas (a type of springtail)! We wound up getting completely and utterly turned around for some reason, but eventually made our way back to the car.